FROMLINE: Laura Thomas

Newswise – A new computer model mimics lunar dust so well that it could lead to smoother, safer lunar robot teleoperations.

The tool, developed by Researcher at the University of Bristol and based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratorycould be used to train astronauts before lunar missions.

Working with its industrial partner Thales Alenia Space in the UK, which has a particular interest in developing working robotic systems for space applications, the team investigated a virtual version of this Regolithanother name for moon dust.

Lunar regolith is of particular interest for upcoming lunar exploration missions planned over the next decade. From this, scientists may be able to extract valuable resources such as oxygen, rocket fuel or construction materials to support a long-term presence on the moon.

For collecting regolith, remotely controlled robots prove to be a practical choice due to their lower risks and costs compared to human spaceflight. However, operating robots over these long distances introduces large delays in the system, making them difficult to control.

Now that the team knows that this simulation behaves similarly to reality, they can use it to mimic the operation of a robot on the moon. This approach allows the operator to control the robot without delays, resulting in a smoother and more efficient experience.

Lead author Joe Loucabased in Bristol Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Technology explained: “Think of it like a realistic video game set on the moon – we want to make sure the virtual version of the moon dust behaves exactly like the actual thing, so we can use it to control a robot on the moon.” will behave as expected.

“This model is accurate, scalable and lightweight and can therefore be used to support upcoming lunar exploration missions.”

This study followed from previous work of the team who found that experienced robot operators want to train on their systems with increasing risk and realism. This means starting with a simulation and building up to using physical models before moving on to using the actual system. An accurate simulation model is critical for training and building operator confidence in the system.

Although some particularly accurate models of lunar dust have been developed previously, these are so detailed that they require a lot of computing time and are therefore too slow to smoothly control a robot. Researchers at DLR (German Aerospace Center) met this challenge by developing a virtual model of the regolith that takes into account its density, stickiness and friction, as well as the moon’s reduced gravity. Their model is of interest to the space industry because it requires little computing resources and can therefore be executed in real time. However, it works best with small amounts of moon dust.

The Bristol team’s goals were initially to expand the model to handle more regolith while remaining light enough to run in real time, and then to verify it experimentally.

Joe Louca added: “Our main focus for this project was to improve the user experience for operators of these systems – how could we make their work easier?

“We started with the virtual regolith model originally developed by DLR and modified it to make it more scalable.

“We then conducted a series of experiments – half in a simulated environment, half in the real world – to measure whether the virtual moon dust behaved the same as its real-world counterpart.”

Because this regolith model shows promise in that it is accurate, scalable, and lightweight enough to be used in real time, the team will next investigate whether it can be used when operating robots to collect regolith.

They also plan to investigate whether a similar system could be developed to simulate Martian soil, which could be useful for future exploration missions, or to train scientists to handle material from the highly anticipated material Mars sample return mission.

Paper:

“Verification of a Virtual Lunar Regolith Simulant” by Joe Louca, John Vrublevskis, Kerstin Eder and Antonia Tzemanaki in Frontiers in Space Technologies, Space Exploration section.

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